Protecting hares.

The Hare Preservation Trust (HPT) began life as the British Brown Hare Preservation Society in 2001/2002, but subsequently became the HPT in order to reflect its concern also for mountain and Irish hares.

The brown hare population has declined from at least 4 million in 1880 to around only three quarters of a million today, largely due to changes in agricultural practices. Nearly all traditional hay meadows have been lost since 1945. Silage production (less reliant on the weather) now dominates with fewer species of grass, so biodiversity is reduced. Hares thrive when they have a wide variety of grass and herbs – monoculture crops are not a good hare habitat. The removal of hedgerows and strips of grass alongside them has meant the hare is having its foraging areas and breeding habitat reduced. The increased use of pesticides is detrimental to hares, and autumn sown cereal crops are too mature when leverets need easily digestible food.

A 1995 Biodiversity Action Plan to double hare numbers by 2010 was not successful, even in part. DEFRA are still offering financial incentives to farmers to benefit wildlife by such measures as reinstating field margins and hedgerows, which would also benefit hares. But organised shoots starting in February still contribute to nearly 400,000 hares killed annually leaving tens of thousands of orphaned leverets to die of starvation. The Hare Preservation Trust, together with its coalition allies, petitioned the Westminster government in 2013 for an English hare shooting close season from February to September (the main breeding season) but this was rejected. Scotland already has such a close season. Only in East Anglia is the hare population at a current level whereby extinction is not a possibility. However in other parts of the country there are fewer, if any, hares to be seen and in 2011 a zoology report for the Eden TV natural history channel listed the brown hare as one of the UK species most at risk of extinction by 2050.

The 2004 Hunting with Dogs Act outlawed hare hunting and hare coursing, but regrettably both of these activities still take place in various parts of the country. Police forces have to deal with numerous reports of hare coursing on farmland, which damages crops and boundary fences and the perpetrators have been known to assault farmers who try to intervene.

There are no definite records of the brown hare (lepus europaeus) in Britain until the Roman invasion of the first century AD. The Romans were partial to hare, served in a variety of ways, and the hares were kept in walled gardens called leporaria until needed for human consumption. As hares are unlikely to breed in captivity it must be assumed that the Romans originally had to bring the animals with them, releasing some into the countryside to create a breeding stock.

With the development of agriculture, providing the open arable habitat which the brown hare requires, the population was then able to spread countrywide. Unlike rabbits baby hares (called leverets) are born, up to four in a litter, with eyes open and fully furred. They are soon able to individually move away from the birth site but return daily at dusk for their mother to feed them collectively before all dispersing once again to lie low to avoid predators. Hares of course live entirely above ground and do not have the protection of burrows as do rabbits. The leverets are eventually weaned after three to four weeks. Hares are known to be capable of superfoetation, whereby a pregnant doe can conceive for a second time resulting in her carrying two concurrent litters but at different stages of development.

Hares are our fastest wild land mammal, reaching speeds of up to 45 miles per hour in open terrain. Their preferred habitat is arable/grassland but they can also be found on heathland or in woodland and dunes. The springtime “boxing” activity between hares is normally a female fending off unwanted male suitors during the peak mating season. The hares’s main predators, especially to the leverets, are foxes, stoats, badgers, mink, corvids and birds of prey such as the buzzard.

The Hare Preservation Trust has both email and postal members and a website at www.hare-preservation-trust.co.uk, or postal address at PO Box 447, Bridgwater, Somerset, TA6 9GA. Members receive a monthly news Bulletin to which they can contribute with hare sightings and stories such as the hand rearing of leverets etc. The HPT’s website includes detailed information on hand rearing. For any further information please e mail technicalinfo@hare-preservation-trust.co.uk .

File:European Hare.jpg

photograph of European Hare by Ji?í Nedorost  from http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/75/European_Hare.jpg

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